The closure of schools in Kenya in March of 2020 due to COVID-19 forced students to stay home for over nine months. The government suspended all forms of in-person learning until January of 2021, when the spread of the virus was moderately contained. During this long break, girls across the country became increasingly vulnerable to female genital mutilation (FGM), sexual violence, teenage pregnancy, early marriage, and other dangers.
By the time schools reopened for in-person learning, it was evident that some of the hard fought progress to reduce FGM, teenage pregnancy, and early marriage across Kenya had been lost. A report by National Aids Control Council (NACC) and the National Council for Population and Development (NCPD) listed Narok County, where we operate, as one of nine counties in Kenya that recorded a significantly higher proportion of teenage pregnancies. According to the 2021 Economic Survey, more than 330,000 adolescent girls in Kenya between the ages of 10 and 19 became pregnant in 2020 during the school closure.
Over the years we have learned that whenever girls are away from the safety of our campuses for an extended period, even during regularly scheduled holiday breaks during normal academic years, they are much more susceptible to these risks. To combat this problem, we started offering holiday camps that allow girls to stay on our campuses and remain safe during school breaks, while also learning about their health, rights, and how best to protect themselves. Unfortunately however, even when schools reopened in 2021, out of an abundance of caution for the spread of COVID-19, we were not permitted to resume our holiday programming that year.
The harrowing statistics from the long COVID-19 closure and subsequent school holidays were a red alert to revive our holiday programming this year once we were granted permission to do so. On March 17, all of our high school students gathered at our KCE I campus for a two-week camp. In addition to being safe and secure in our dorms during the current break, the students also received training on a variety of important topics, including sex education, reproductive health, self-defense, gender equity, and their legal rights. The camp started with training led by I’m Worth Defending (IWD), a local organization that is committed to community empowerment through personal safety and self-defense training.
11th grader Jackline said the training was enlightening, adding that she was fascinated by the sessions on sexual and reproductive health and how to resist peer pressure. She revealed, “I am now more confident about myself and nobody will mislead me. I want to urge other girls to stand up for their rights, build their confidence, and condemn harmful practices.”
Fellow 11th grader Clemencia shared similar sentiments about the camp and explained how they were taught to make informed decisions in different situations. “We were presented with scenarios during a puppet theater presentation. We watched and listened to the dramatized scenarios and then we discussed what is right for each case. The guidance on how to avoid dangerous situations that can lead to rape or teenage pregnancy was so elaborate and informative.”
IWD facilitators observed that during their last training with our girls in 2019, before the disruption caused by COVID-19, girls were expressing fear that they were being pressured by their families to undergo FGM during holidays. IWD said their findings this time around indicated that the narrative is changing as more girls are learning the skills to advocate for themselves and condemn the harmful practice. Lorna, another 11th grader at the camp shared, “This was my second holiday training. I am glad I implemented what they taught us in 2019 and I am happy they have emphasized the same teachings during this holiday as well. I stopped my mother from taking my younger sister to be cut, because I had been taught how to advocate for others and stand up for the rights of all girls.”
These trainings are crucial experiences for all of our girls and we feel so fortunate to be able to resume them. We know that we can’t be with them every moment of every day, so it is our hope that through these camps and our other programs, we can equip them with skills and knowledge to navigate difficult life situations and confidently advocate for their own wellbeing and for siblings and peers who may need support. While we are still making up for lost time due to COVID-19, being able to resume our holiday camps is a critical step in the right direction.